Damage control at Covenant Life Church, pt. 2Posted: May 30, 2011
Trigger warning for child sex abuse, spousal/domestic abuse, spiritual abuse.
The problems Josh addresses in his comments (and those he fails to acknowledge) are characteristic of SGM as a whole. A single apology to a single church is inadequate. CLC teachings are funneled to and reproduced at every other SGM church through conferences, podcasts, books, sermon recordings, visits from CLC pastors, blogs, on and on. Books by CJ and Josh and CJ’s wife and daughters are virtually required reading for SGM church members. The typical SGM church member outside CLC has heard several sermons by CJ in particular, along with other top-level SGM leaders, and has heard each of those sermons more than once. The typical SGM church member, in fact, is familiar with CJ’s catchphrases, and can and will repeat them with little prompting (“I’m doing better than I deserve!” and “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”). People across SGM read the same books, listen to the same music, make the same lifestyle and educational choices, only marry people from their own or other SGM churches, have a religious vocabulary unique to SGM, even among other evangelical reformed groups, etc., etc. But don’t worry, just because almost everyone happens to conform to a very narrow set of lifestyles and behaviors, just because everyone looks and talks the same, doesn’t mean SGM is a high control cultic group.
This raises a set of related problems with this “apology”: in various ways it’s a perfect illustration of the high control/cultic aspects of SGM’s church culture.
1) This “apology” does not at all address the established pattern of SGM leaders covering up child molestation, promoting teachings that foster, enable, and excuse domestic spousal and child abuse, and bullying women in particular into staying with abusive husbands. These are allegations that in a healthy church with responsible leadership would be addressed in a transparent and direct fashion. Instead the leaders at CLC and other SGM churches privately deny that these incidents ever took place (even though at least one of them involved a registered sex offender) and publicly pretend as though the allegations don’t exist.
A church that doesn’t tolerate or enable abusive behavior is one where the leaders don’t hesitate to say so publicly, and loudly, and to be very clear about the measures they have in place to minimize abuse, to report abusers, and to help survivors. SGM couldn’t be farther from this; they don’t deal honestly with the issue of abuse. They in fact give the impression that SGM is some sort of abuse-free nirvana: CJ calls CLC “the happiest place on earth” while Josh claims that spousal abuse is “very rare” (more lies). SGM cultivates a culture of silence and secrecy around abuse, a culture in which abuse and abusers thrive.
2) Josh doesn’t address allegations that children of pastors at Covenant Life School are have been held to a lower standard of behavior and faced much less harsh consequences for breaking school rules than children of “regular” members, who are frequently expelled for serious infractions (again, totally not culty).
3) The problems at Covenant Life LONG predate Josh’s presence there. Josh isn’t the one responsible for creating these problems, though he’s certainly had a huge hand in perpetuating them. The longtime leaders of SGM – Dave Harvey, Steve Shank, Brent Detwiler, among others, and most especially beloved leader and “apostle” CJ Mahaney – are the ones who should be giving this apology. Why leave it up to one of the youngest and least culpable members of the leadership to handle? Why isn’t CJ stepping up and taking responsibility for the toxic culture he’s micromanaged for the past 30 years? Instead Josh effusively praises CJ – who’s known for his narcissistic and controlling style of leadership and his encouragement of a cult of personality with himself and his family at the center – for showing the pastors where they went wrong with reducing holiness to a single practice. Ugh. Again, this is how cults work. CJ is being held up yet again as the paragon of perfection despite the fact that as CLC’s leader from its founding, he bears main responsibility for CLC being what it is today.
4) Throughout his comments Josh undermines in various ways the seriousness of the mistakes he’s supposedly apologizing for. He says he understands that these mistakes have caused people deep pain, but simultaneously makes light of them by cracking jokes and laughing inappropriately (this is more obvious in the audio of his comments, which isn’t 100% identical to transcript). He attributes the high level of group conformity at CLC to the fact that they care so much about being holy. He feels the need to assert that the CLC pastoral team hasn’t been wrong about “everything” – as though the pastors would have to be wrong about everything to do serious, long-term damage by abusing the trust people have in them. He uses the manipulative language of “our church isn’t perfect/no church is perfect” – as though calls for accountability are identical to expecting perfection.
5) Relatedly, Josh claims to understand that there’s been a longterm established pattern of high pressure to conform, and that the pastors themselves have perpetuated this culture. Yet he expects his audience to continue to invest complete trust in the pastors that NOW they really understand what the problem is and things will be very different in the future. If the pastors were so unable to see that these things were issues for so many years, why should they be trusted to understand them now?
6) Finally, and also relatedly, from start to finish the apology is a carefully orchestrated performance completely controlled by Josh and the pastoral team behind him. No actual victims of CLC’s abusive practices were allowed to share their stories with the church. All discussions of negative experiences have taken place behind closed doors, on turf firmly controlled by CLC: e.g., Josh’s home. We have to take it on his word that people have truly been quick to extend forgiveness for the damage done, as he claims. Further, Josh gives numerous verbal cues to the congregation about how they should interpret his admission and apology. His comments aren’t evidence of a serious, endemic problem exposed by blogs critical of SGM, but rather “realignments” and “refinements” (in other words, minor adjustments) that are God’s answer to prayer for revival. They’re “not an indictment of [CLC’s] history,” but part of an ongoing growth in the church. And on and on. The whole thing is deeply manipulative in how it attempts to direct and control the congregation’s reaction.
This is not an adequate apology. In my opinion, it’s not even an adequate first step. It’s damage control. It’s a vague, minimizing, manipulative, blame-shifting, micromanaging, incredibly dishonest attempt at damage control. People are leaving several SGM churches in droves. Enrollments at Covenant Life School have dropped significantly. Josh and the rest of the pastoral team want people to believe it’s purely coincidental they’ve just now figured out that they’ve made some serious mistakes. In a high control cult of personality like CLC, such a transparently convenient excuse just might fly.